Review: Guthrie’s “Master Butchers Singing Club” Hits Mostly High Notes

Terrific acting trumps the difficulties of staging Louise Erdrich’s epic

First things first, about the premiere staging of The Master Butchers Singing Club at the Guthrie Theater: As the boisterous butcher Fidelis Waldvogel, Lee Mark Nelson is triumphant—the finest performance I’ve seen all year, conveying joy and desire, rage and braggadocio with equal aplomb. If this show were on Broadway, he would deserve a Tony nomination.

As his wife, Eva, Katie Guentzel is also engagingly assured. The scenes where her story unfolds are where this play finds its heart.

The only one of Louise Erdrich’s many novels to be dramatized, The Master Butchers Singing Club is an epic story of colliding cultures on the pre-war prairie, full of quirky characters and unusual romances that humanize the history of America’s westward expansion. The production was conceived and directed by Francesca Zambello, who staged the Guthrie’s popular musical version of Little House on the Prairie a couple years ago.

Among Erdrich’s fans, the book is considered one of her most accessible, the storyline less shrouded in the complicated symbolism and vision-like sequences that enrich her work. In places, it’s downright pithy, and much of the play’s dialogue leans heavily on Erdrich’s remarkable similes, wry humor, and poetic turns of phrase.

The actors labor heavily, and successfully, to bring the page to life. The energy and zip of the production, from the titular singing to dramatic rescues, deaths, and confrontations—especially as the first act sets up the story—is as commanding of attention as fireworks.

At times, however, the difficulty of editing an epic down to size becomes apparent, with scenes spliced in like vignettes, dates on a timeline, some to little dramatic payoff. Fidelis, for instance, is attacked by a pig, and we expect the worst, at least a loss of limb or business. But he’s up and at ’em before the scene’s over, with seemingly no consequence. A father’s ill-fated drunkenness, played mostly for laughs here, comes and goes so often, like a boy crying wolf, that it loses its dark edge.

At other times, the story suffers from its faithfulness to the script. As is so often the case, what sounds wise and witty on the page can fall flat on the stage, where it must be dramatized in three dimensions. This is never more apparent than in the second act, where the difficult explication of the massacre at Wounded Knee is related in a long monologue by Delphine’s father, who is supposedly dying of alcoholism but somehow sobers up enough to explain the historical tragedy on his deathbed as though reading it from the encyclopedia. A couple of historical characters step in, as though at Fort Snelling, to dramatize the retelling. It feels false at best, an awkward shoehorning.

More nagging, however, is the characterization of Delphine, the young woman caught in the midst of various tragedies, whose sense of humor allows her to survive but onstage can come across as downright flip. The accretion of tragedy seems rarely to weigh upon her shoulders.

The problem may be a shyness of melodrama, as in the recent Guthrie production of A Streetcar Named Desire, where the audience was set up to laugh as often as they might at The Importance of Being Earnest—as though pure melodrama might put off the audience.

Perhaps it was the opening-night festivities, marking the first play of the new season, where Guthrie regulars were in their element, greeting their friends as though at the Kentucky Derby (it would have been a fine night to rob Kenwood). Erdrich’s story, left to its own dramatic devices, might have made a few of those coifs stand on end.